On January 26, 2015, a Californian 911 dispatcher’s phone began to ring. Within the next hour, she received five calls from concerned citizens regarding the same emergency: Facebook was down.
The baffled rescue worker sent the following public announcement to Claycord.com, a local news website:
“I just want to know if you can put a note out to Claycordians asking them to not call 911 when a website doesn’t work? We have nothing to do with Facebook and when Facebook isn’t working, it’s not an emergency. Our lines are dedicated to handle life and death calls, and even though Facebook is important to a lot of people, it’s not a matter of life and death when it stops working. One caller even called back to tell me I was being rude because I told her it wasn’t a life-threatening emergency.”
It sounds like a joke. But it isn’t.
In fact, it’s a pretty serious comment on the effect that social media has had on modern society. It has restructured international businesses, cultivated uprisings and toppled dictators. And at an ever-increasing rate, it’s going everywhere with us, in our pockets.
Because social media is still in its infancy, its long-term effects are difficult to study – particularly as new platforms rise and fall on an almost monthly basis. But as researchers attempt to pin empirical evidence onto a moving target, one thing is certain: amidst the selfies and 140-character missives, something is shifting on a societal level.
What’s the difference between snorting a line of cocaine and refreshing your Instagram feed? Not much, as far as your brain is concerned. Social media is a drug of a different, digital kind: one that’s legal and largely unregulated.
“That iPad is like crack cocaine for young children. It releases [neurotransmitters] dopamine and serotonin and that feel-good factor,” says Cathy McEvoy, a counsellor at Norman Henshilwood High School in Cape Town. “If you have an addictive personality, [technology] becomes quite addictive in nature, so your brain can’t deal with all that overstimulation. You need it more frequently.”
The brain’s motivational system may be complex, but it can also be easily cracked. In an article published in Psychology Today, Dr Susan Weinschenk explains that dopamine is critical in all sorts of brain functions, including attention, motivation, seeking behaviour and reward.
“With the internet, Twitter, and texting you now have almost instant gratification of your desire to seek,” the article reads. “Want to talk to someone right away? Send a text and they respond in a few seconds. It’s easy to get in[to] a dopamine-induced loop. Dopamine starts you seeking, then you get rewarded for the seeking, which makes you seek more. It becomes harder and harder to stop looking at email, stop texting, or stop checking your cellphone to see if you have a message or a new text.”
The result can be seen in just about any Cape Town cafe or coffee shop. Resting atop tables or clutched in clammy hands, technology is everywhere and heavy use is rapidly becoming the norm.
“When your phone beeps, you don’t even get a chance to think,” says Dr Ofir Turel, a professor of Information Systems and Decision Sciences at California State University, Fullerton. “You just reach out and check it, even if you’re driving.”
Sometimes, reaching for your phone can prove deadly. Just last month, a Japanese tourist fell to his death as he posed for a selfie at the Taj Mahal in India. In 2014, a Polish couple suffered the same fate while taking a selfie in Portugal. Their children, aged five and six, watched their parents slip off the cliff, cellphones in tow.
Dr Turel has studied the ‘dark side’ of technology for several years and has published extensive research in several prestigious journals worldwide. In them, he analyses the negative and potentially addictive consequences of overusing technology and social media.
“You don’t have to have substances to mess up your brain chemistry to become addicted; you can become addicted to a behaviour that is very rewarding,” says Dr Turel. Checking social media – particularly networks that shift and update quickly, such as Facebook and Twitter – is one of those rewarding behaviours. “At a certain point there is a switch in the brain that turns from liking something to wanting it.”
South Africa is already wired into this loop. A recent annual survey by social media agency We Are Social found 11,8 million active social media accounts in South Africa – 10,6 million of which are accessed via mobile phone.